Fiction – hardcover; Bloomsbury; 276 pages; 2011. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
If we ever needed a novel to satirise the current malaise of the British Empire — complete with unhappy public sector workers, crippling debt and politicos looking after their own interests — then who better than to offer it up than Magnus Mills? A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In is Mills’ seventh novel, and it’s typical Mills fare.
If you’ve never read anything by Mills before, you need to prepare yourself in advance. I promise that you will have never encountered anything quite like a Mills novel before.
He writes in a completely stripped back way, using short, simplistic sentences. On face value, these may seem dull and monotonous, but you can never accuse him of being boring. That’s because it’s up to the reader to figure out what’s going on — in many cases, it’s the things that Mills doesn’t say that make his stories so powerful.
Mills’ stories are also peopled entirely by men, there is little or no characterisation (although you will probably recognise people you know — officials and jobsworths primarily), little or no descriptions of people or places, and the plots are superficial.
But as allegories or fables, you can’t get any better. And as far as black comedies go, you’re in for a real treat.
Poking fun at the feudal system
In A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In Mills’ tackles the feudal system, which is not a topic you’d generally associate with humour. Yet in Mills’ hands it becomes the funniest thing since, well, the feudal system.
The story is told through the eyes of an unnamed character, who is Principal Composer to the Imperial Court. Despite never having played a note in his life, he is “supreme leader” of the imperial orchestra. He clearly isn’t up for the job, but it doesn’t matter, because the conductor, a very talented musician, does all the work for which he can take credit.
The Principal Composer sits on an eight-member cabinet presided over by his Exalted Highness, The Majestic Emperor of the Realms, Dominions, Colonies and Commonwealth of Greater Fallowfields.
Unfortunately, His Highness seems to have gone missing, and because he never turns up to the weekly cabinet meeting no decisions about the empire, which is bestridden by ongoing problems, can be made. So the officers-of-state, who are all equal in the hierarchy, muddle along as best they can.
Any form of cooperation between departments is ruled out, so the problems — an unreliable postal system, a lack of money in circulation (it’s all being “reserved for a rainy day” by the Chancellor of the Exchequer) and an imperial telescope that only works if the Astronomer Royal has a sixpence to put in the slot — are never sorted.
A series of idiotic decisions are made. Chief among these is an imperial edict that arrives via post from the absentee emperor. He orders that the sun must set at five o’clock all year round, but the only way to make that happen is to ensure all clocks within Greater Fallowfields are put forward by two minutes every day. This means a great deal of work for one particular cabinet member — who moans and groans about it — but for several others it’s seen as a wonderful opportunity to enjoy tea — lemon curd and toasted soldiers — in the library to watch the sunset every day.
A crumbling empire
Mills paints a convincing portrait of an empire, a former maritime supremacy, now stuck in its ways, failing to modernise or make decisions with the best interests of its citizens in mind.
Typically, there’s a lot of deadpan humour (when one cabinet member points out that there’s “absolutely no kind of spiritual, theological or pastoral representative”, a colleague responds, “Thank God”) and bitter irony (the cabinet spends much of its time rehearsing a play which is an “example of the feudal system in perfect working order — until someone tampers with it”).
But it all comes to a head when a (literal) threat on the horizon is noted: foreigners are building a trainline to Greater Fallowfields and an immigration boom seems imminent — or does it?
A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In is a seemingly impossible mix of the odd and endearing. It’s playful and fun, but with a serious undercurrent running between the lines. The characters are delightfully eccentric and the way in which the empire is run will, at times, remind you of the terrible bureaucracy and inflexibility of systems here in the UK.
All in all, it is a wonderful, comic read that is bound to appeal to new readers and Mills’ fans alike.
More reviews of Mills’ work
I’ve reviewed all of Mills’ previous novels on the site: The Restraint of Beasts (1998), All Quiet on the Orient Express (1999), Three to See the King (2001), The Scheme for Full Employment (2003), Explorers of the New Century (2005) and The Maintenance of Headway (2009).